I have a baby. I have an MFA. And I originally intended this blog post to be a short list of tips for working your writing life around raising an infant. Or working your infant around your writing life? (Haha! Like that’s a thing.) But this led to several failed drafts. I’m a work-from-home mother of one with a supportive spouse. I know plenty of fully employed moms, stay-at-home dads, single parents, every-other-weekend parents. Some parents I know teach, and even without kids that’s like having two full-time jobs for which you receive a part-time wage. Some parents have spouses and partners who are not as domestically challenged as some (ahem, mine) and, thus, have someone else to take care of the day-to-day minutiae of adulthood. Each family has its unique goals, means, and choices. My tips, then, really only work for me and my family, where the challenge to write daily competes with the challenge of keeping a crawling 10-month-old from licking the toilet seat.
Having a baby caused a seismic shift in my priorities. And while I cannot speak on behalf of all parents, I’d wager that my shifting priorities in the face of parenthood is a more or less universal experience. We’ve all heard it said that a baby changes everything. It’s one of those vague, pithy expressions that made my childless self think, Ugh, these people with kids are insufferable. Now that I’m a parent, I know that my childless self was right. We parents are sort of insufferable. (I mean, I’m blogging about my baby as if I have nothing else going on in my life. But here’s a hard truth and perhaps some mental birth control—there is literally nothing else going on in my life. My daughter’s needs are relentless and all-consuming, and when she finally, blessedly goes to bed at night, I am a quivering, weepy, exhausted wreck (in case you’re wondering why I turned down the invitation to game night or the latest literary event). Also true—that stupid pithy expression.
So here’s a sampling of what those new priorities might look like if your or your partner’s ovaries strike up their undeniable siren song and you decide to heed their sweet, vicious call.
First priority is baby. I do think I can speak on behalf of all parents in that regard. Society sort of expects us to keep the baby alive, which is harder than it sounds, especially in the newborn weeks. (“Why won’t you eat?!” “Why won’t you poop?!” “How are you an organism?!”) Society also expects us to raise our babies in such a way that they don’t grow up to be that coworker who everyone hates. Also a tall order. Have you ever met a toddler? They’re assholes.
Second priority is writing. It has to be if you ever want to write again. There will always be a million things to do that aren’t writing. If you don’t have kids, you probably already experience this. Once you have kids, your to-do list multiplies like staph on that toilet seat my daughter is so intent on getting into her mouth.
In my life—and here I am only speaking for myself—making writing my second priority required several important and difficult decisions. First, I knew I couldn’t keep teaching. I hated it, for one. The pay is crap, so it wasn’t going to make financial sense considering the cost of daycare. And when I was spending 70+ hours per week grading papers, I damn sure wasn’t getting any writing done. (Even spending all day with a baby doesn’t zombify me like grading Freshman Comp papers did.) In order for my priorities to be baby and writing, the job had to go. This works because my husband does and because I started my own direct sales business. So I work, but the time requirement isn’t nearly so overwhelming and the emails aren’t nearly as whiney.
Second, I had to be honest with myself about when I get my best writing done, and it is not at night. Even before children, I was not one of those nocturnal writers. I love to sleep. At night. (Yes, I know that I should have thought more about that before having a baby, but seriously, it’s so hard to say no to your ovaries when they are shouting so loudly at you.) Thus my love of nighttime sleep + how I feel at the end of the day = telling myself, “I’ll get some writing in after the baby goes to bed and we eat dinner” is a big, fat lie. I write best in the mid-morning. Plain and simple. So when the baby goes down for her after-breakfast nap, sometime around 8 a.m. (yes, we’ve already been awake for about two hours at that point), I go write. I don’t shower. I don’t load the dishwasher. I don’t check email or Facebook. I go and write. I may only have twenty or thirty minutes before she wakes up again. Some days I get lucky, and I get an hour, sometimes two. This is me making hay while the sun shines. Smelly, hairy-legged hay.
Third, I had to establish “office hours” for my business. I have to devote some time to earning an income mainly because keeping a roof over baby’s head goes a long way towards that whole “keep baby alive” thing. In other words, I have had to break my addiction to multitasking. Writing time is for writing. Work time is for working. If that seems overly rigid, it is, but admitting to myself that I am far too prone to distraction was another hard truth I had to recognize.
Related to multitasking was the fourth thing I had to do—focus solely on finishing my novel. Stop dallying in new poem drafts. Stop tinkering with short stories in an attempt to get them ready to send out because I am overcome with jealousy to the point of rage blackouts every time another friend announces a publication and I think, I should be sending stuff out! Hell, I shouldn’t even be writing this blog post. (I never said I was good at this whole not multitasking thing. Yet.)
And last, I had to make peace with the fact that a good day of writing may only consist of twenty to thirty minutes of work. It’s a supreme frustration to get into the zone, to finally be humming along, and then hear a cry over the baby monitor. But…priority #1. For a time, I had convinced myself that the only good writing was when I could work uninterrupted for hours. The result of that mindset is that I wrote never. At this point in my life, unless I leave the house, there is no such thing as hours without interruption. (Even leaving the house isn’t always a sure bet. “Hey, let’s meet up at Vespr and write!” turns into “Hey! Let’s drink coffee and gossip!”) It was a difficult mental battle, but I realized that fifteen minutes of writing is still better than no minutes of writing. And, as I keep telling myself, eventually this child will go to kindergarten.
If I was smart, though, I would have come to these decisions prior to giving birth. I suppose that the baby was the kick in the ass that I needed to get serious about my writing dreams. But for you childless young ‘uns, that doesn’t have to be you! You can get serious about your priorities and build good habits now. Write every day. Schedule your writing time and keep it sacrosanct. Work your life around your writing while your life is still your own because, trust me, if you ever make the foolish, masochistic decision to procreate, it won’t be. Then again, you’re likely already good at making foolish, masochistic decisions. You chose to be a writer.
Dianne Turgeon Richardson is a 2014 graduate of UCF’s Creative Writing MFA program. She lives in Orlando with her husband Kit and daughter Bess, who, for all her mother’s sarcastic posturing about the difficulties of parenthood, is actually pretty rad. Dianne is (still) working on revisions to her novel/master’s thesis while also slinging jewelry, remaining active in her church and sorority, and occasionally reading in public or contributing to podcasts. She has the requisite list of lit mag publications.